Read an Excerpt
Hailey North loved the holidays.
All the glitter and fun. Smiling faces glowing with joy, the secrets and excitement. And the gifts. Gifts and surprises always rocked. Especially hard-earned ones, presented at a fancy dress-up ball. Or, in this case, a ballroom packed with the rich and influential of the Northern California fashion scene all dressed up like holiday cartoons.
She should be ecstatic. Over-the-moon excited.
Tonight she'd finally be sure that her lingerie company wouldn't be joining Father Time in waving goodbye at the end of the year.
Instead, she was afraid the past couple of months of financial worries and stress over keeping her company had sent her over the edge into Crazyville.
Here she was surrounded by male models and wealthy designers, many of the most gorgeous specimens of the opposite sex to be found in the Bay Area. And it was the six-and-a-half feet of green fur, snowshoes and a bowling-pin shaped body across the room that was making her hot.
Hailey squinted just to be sure.
Nope. There was absolutely nothing enticing about the costumed guy at the bar. But sex appeal radiated off him like a tractor beam, pulling her in. Turning her on.
Green fur, for crying out loud.
Wow. Month after month of no sex really did a number on a healthy woman's libido.
Or maybe it was a year dedicated to the objective of making romance sexy. Of studying romantic fantasies, and finding ways to tastefully re-create them in lingerie form and show women that as long as they felt sexy, they were sexy.
Or, possibly, it might have something to do with the glass of champagne she'd knocked back for a little social courage when she'd walked into a ballroom filled with high-powered movers and shakers, most of whom had more money in their wallets than she had in her bank account. And all of them here to impress Rudy Rudolph, a department-store tycoon with a wicked sense of fun and prized openings in his new spring fashion lineup.
She glanced at her empty champagne flute, then at the bar. She should trade this in for something nonalcoholic. Something that didn't make her go tingly over green, grouchy holiday figures.
Then the Grinch pushed back his fur to check the time. When the hairs on his fingers caught on his leather watch-band, he yanked off the gloves in an impatient move, tossing them on the bar.
Thirst forgotten, Hailey stared at his hand as he reached for his own drink. Long and lean, with tapered fingers. Even from across the room, his palm looked broad. Her mind played through every hand-to-penis-size euphemism she'd ever heard and came up with the only conclusion possible.
The Grinch was hung.
The only question was, did he go for cute elves? Or was he strictly a man-and-his-dog kind of guy? Maybe she should have dressed up like a Who?
She'd taken two steps toward him, her body desperate to find out, before she caught herself.
No. She was here for business.
She peered at the baggy, saggy, furry back and grimaced. Not for fun. No matter how big the fun's hands were.
Relieved, both at the distraction from lusting after the Grinch and at there actually being someone here who knew her name, Hailey turned.
Her social smile shifted to genuine delight at the sight of the man who'd made this night possible for her. Jared Jones, assistant to the wealthiestand most eccentrictycoon in the department-store business.
Jared had taken her under his wing last summer when they'd met in an elevator. Hailey had been on her way to pitch her lingerie designs to the sales team and Jared had been bemoaning a rip in his shirt. Before they'd reached the sixth floor, she'd pulled out some fabric tape for a temporary mend, earning his gratitude and his endless devotion.
Apparently, a fashion faux pas was, to some, the end of the world.
"Jared," she greeted, leaning in for a hug but careful not to let him bump her head. It'd taken her twenty minutes to get the bell-festooned elf hat pinned to her curls in a way that didn't make her hair look like fluffy poodle ears.
"I love your gingerbread-man costume. Is that your favorite holiday character?" she asked, flicking her finger on one of his cheerful, oversize buttons. Her eyes widened before she laughed aloud as she noted the words Eat Me etched on the red plastic.
"Edible goodness, that's me," he said with a wink. Then he shifted his head to the left and gave a little wag of his chin. "And if all goes well, that drummer boy over there will be having a taste before the night is out."
Used to Jared's aggressive sexuality by now, Hailey gave the drummer an obligatory once-over before sharing an impressed look with her horny gingerbread friend.
"But look at you," he gushed, his loud enthusiasm aimed as much at getting the drummer's attention as it was appreciation for Hailey's costume. "You know, I've seen at least a dozen elves tonight, but you're the best by far. You look fabulous. Is everything you're wearing straight from your lingerie line?"
"Everything but the skirt," Hailey confirmed, arms wide as she gave a slow turn to show off the goods. Her candy-cane-striped bustier with its red satin trim and white laces paired nicely with her red stockings and their white seams up the back that ended in clever bows just below the hem of her green tulle ballerina skirt. She was proof positive that the right lingerie could make any woman feel sexy.
Nothing like a year in the gym, a carb-elimination diet and a great tan to make a girl look damned hot in lingerie.
Too bad she'd only hit the gym maybe four times in the past twelve months, loved carbs like she loved her momma and was closer to winter-white than sun-kissed tan.
But that was the beauty of Merry Widow lingerie. A girl didn't have to have a supermodel body to lookand feelfabulous in it.
"Oh, darling," Jared breathed in admiration as he completed his inspection.
Hailey didn't have to follow his gaze to know where he was staring. After all, the guy might not be interested in what her lingerie was covering, but he was all about fashion.
And her boots were pure fashion candy.
The white Manolo booties were an early Christmas present from her father. Well, not really from him, since he never knew what to get her. But she'd bought them last month with the holiday check he'd sent, so that made them his gift to her.
"Hailey, you have the best taste in footwear," he sighed. "Those boots are perfect. And such a great touch to bring the outfit from cute to couture."
"Thanks. Will Mr. Rudolph be arriving soon?" she asked, shifting from one foot to the other. She wiggled her toes in her most excellent boots as a reminder that a girl could handle anything if she was wearing fabulous footwear. "Since he's announcing his choices for the spring exclusives, shouldn't he do it before all the designers are drunk?"
While she was still tipsy enough to use getting one of those prized exclusives as an excuse to seduce the Grinch.
"Drunk designers only add to Rudy's sense of fun," Jared told her with a sly grin. He didn't say a word about the contracts, though. She knew he knew who'd been chosen. And he knew she knew. But they both knew she wouldn't ask.
"Quit obsessing," Jared said, giving her a nudge with his shoulder and leaving a streak of glitter on her arm.
"Maybe you should see if the drummer boy's sticks are worth checking out." She tilted her head toward the guy he'd been scoping. "I can't clear my head enough to be fun company."
"Darling, I'm here to enjoy the party with my favorite designer. If there was anything I could do to set your mind at ease so you could give the party the appreciation it deserves, I would. But you know meI don't kiss and tell."
Giving in to her nerves, and reminding herself that she'd taken a cab here, Hailey traded her empty champagne glass for a full one, then arched one brow at Jared.
"Okay. So I don't spill company secrets." He hesitated, then wrinkled his nose and leaned closer. "At least not the ones that could get me fired."
Then he looked past her again. This time when his face shifted, it wasn't into lustfully suggestive lines. Instead, he came to attention.
"I don't think the news will be secret for long, though," he told her, twirling his finger to indicate she turn herself around.
Hailey, along with the rest of the ballroom, turned around and came to the same subtle attention that Jared had as a skinny Santa took the stage with two helpers dressed in swaths of white fur and a whole lot of skin.
She leaned forward, peering at the trio. The nerves in her stomach stopped jumping for a few seconds as she stared in shock. "Wow. Mr. Rudolph sure looks different without his tie."
Or maybe it was the fact that the pervy old guy was shirtless under his plush red jacket. Wasn't he in his seventies? Now, that wasn't a pretty sight. Afraid to look at it too long, in case it rendered her blind, Hailey glanced at the rest of the crowd. Nobody else seemed surprised.
"Thank you, everyone," he said, "for joining the Rudolph-department-store annual holiday costume party. As you can see, my favorite character is Santa Claus. Appropriate since I'm the man giving out the gifts tonight."
Fingernails digging into the soft flesh of her palms, Hailey puffed out a breath, trying to diffuse the nerves that'd suddenly clamped onto her intestines.
This was it. The big announcement.
She felt like throwing up.
"This year, instead of simply awarding spring women's-line contracts, I've decided to make things fun. I've chosen two favorite designers in each department. Women's wear, shoes and lingerie. Those designers will compete through the holiday season for the top spot."
Hailey's stomach fell. Competing? That didn't sound good. She wasn't the only one who thought so, either, if the muttering and hisses circling the room were anything to go by.
She gave Jared a puzzled look, trying to shrug off the sudden despair that gripped her. The contracts weren't being awarded tonight? But she needed to know. Without that contract, she was going to lose her business.
Jared ignored her stare, tilting his head pointedly to get her to pay attention.
She dragged her gaze to the stage with a frown. Instead of looking abashed, the old man seemed delighted by the angry buzz. His grin shifted from wicked to a visual cackle as he held up one hand for silence.
It took all of three seconds for him to be obeyed.
"So without further ado, here are the finalists in women's wear," he announced. A model featuring an outfit from each line crossed the stage behind him as he named the designer.
Hailey swallowed hard, trying to get past the tight worry in her throat. It wasn't as if she'd irresponsibly put all of her hopes on this deal. It was more a matter of everything else falling apart until this deal was all that was left to hope for.
She shifted from one foot to the other, trying to appreciate the gorgeous shoes as Rudolph announced the designer finalists for footwear. But not even the studded black leather stilettos could distract her worry.
Then he got to lingerie.
She didn't even listen to the names.
She just watched the models, her eyes locked with desperate hope on the curtain they entered from.
One strutted out in a wickedly sexual invitation in leather. It was the complete opposite of the Merry Widow's style, a look that screamed sex. Hot, kinky sex.
Hailey frowned. It wasn't her style, of course. But it was appealing. If you like hot, kinky sex.
Did she like hot, kinky sex? She'd never had the opportunity to find out. For a second, she wondered if the Grinch was into leather. Before she could imagine that, worry crowded the sexy thoughts right back out of her brain. She held her breath.
"And last but not least, Merry Widow Lingerie." Echoing the announcement was a model in a white satin chemise trimmed in tiny pink rosebuds, a design Hailey had labeled Sweet Seduction.
Fireworks exploded in her head, all bright lights, loud booms and overwhelming excitement.
"Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," she chanted, hopping up and down in her gorgeous booties. She spun around to grab Jared in a tight hug, then did another little dance. "That's me. That's me. I made it."
She made it. She had a chance.
An hour later, she was still giddy. It wasn't a contract, but it wasn't a rejection, either. And she'd learned young to take what she could get.
"This is so cool." Ever since Santa Rudolph's announcement, people kept coming up to congratulate her. That part was great. What was even better, though, were the compliments about her designs, which were displayed all around the room.
She felt like a rock star.
"I'm excited for you, darling. I am sorry it's not a definitive answer, though," Jared said quietly, his face taking on a rare seriousness. "I know how bad you need this deal, and I've been pitching hard for you. But Rudy got this wild notion that a contest would bring in more publicity and make it more fun. He'll decide before the New Year, though. He has to for marketing purposes."
"What kind of publicity?" Big publicity? Good publicity? Could it net her some new clients, maybe a few features in the fashion rags? Hailey's stomach danced again.
"Well " Jared drew out, wrinkling his glittery nose. "I honestly don't think he has a lot of publicity lined up. We were all under the impression that he was simply choosing a single designer for each line. But Friday he talked to some marketing guru who convinced him that it'd bring in great promotion if he made it a competition of some sort instead of a straight-up announcement."
"Who makes the final decision?" she wondered.
Jared pulled another face and shrugged. Clearly he didn't like not being in the know any more than she didn't like not having a clue.
But before Hailey could ask more questions, they were joined by a dapper-looking guy dressed like a festive reindeer with his green-and-red-plaid bow tie.
"Congratulations, Ms. North. I'm Trent Lane, the photographer for Rudolph department stores. I was happy to see your designs in the running. I've taken test shots of each submission and yours is my favorite."
"Really. It seems to epitomize romance. But sexy romance. The boudoir-photo kind, not the Hustler- spread kind."
Hailey giggled, wondering if the leather getups were Hustler material.
"It's my favorite, too," Jared agreed. "I told you when I first saw the line. It's perfect. Next season is all about nostalgia with overtones of passion. Bridal fresh but womanly confident."
Hailey wrinkled her nose, wondering if he realized he'd just described her gorgeous designs in the same terms used for feminine-hygiene products.
"Baby's breath and air ferns lining the runway. Satin backdrops. Maybe one of those long couch things, like Cleopatra would lounge on," Trent mused, falling into what she immediately saw was a creative brainstorming habit between him and Jared.
"A chaise. Perfect," Jared agreed. Tapping his chin, he added, "Maybe carried down the runway by four muscle-bound sex slaves?"
"That's not romantic," Trent dismissed. "You know Rudy really wants to lead the trend this season. If you suggest sex slaves, he might seriously consider Cassia Carver's mesh love sleeves for a part of the women's-wear line."